Thursday, February 6, 2020

Land Acknowledgment: Why Do It?

Liliana Ancalao, Mapuche poet & activist

On the occasion of planning to do a land acknowledgement for Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao's reading, I thought back to the ongoing debate over the value of this effort. Why a land acknowledgment? Does it really accomplish anything? Isn’t it just another meaningless, empty gesture that makes non-native folks feel as if they have checked a box that ensures their comfort?

I was reminded of the video short “Land Acknowledgment” by Baroness von Sketch Show, in which a white woman attempts to do a “recite and run” gesture toward Indigenous presence before a live show. Though she thanks the local Indigenous peoples by name, and even pronounces their tribal names without stumbling, she clearly views the statement as required cover-your-ass, trendy but not actionable boilerplate. A woman in the audience stands, however, and asks, “Isn't there something we should do? Should we leave, if we’re on someone else’s land? Or are part of the tickets sales or refreshments going to support Indigenous nations?” In short, the audience member takes the land acknowledgment as serious and important information that requires a thoughtful response, and some kind of action or reparation.

And in the video, that’s hilarious. Who takes a land acknowledgment seriously?!

This video story tells us that a land acknowledgment, in and of itself, is not enough. It is not enough to simply give it, and it is not enough to simply listen to it. To make a land acknowledgement truly powerful requires that we internalize the story to which it alludes: a story about sovereignty, colonization, decolonization, and truth.

Human beings are made of stories. Laguna pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko says,

I will tell you something about stories...

They aren't just for entertainment.

Don't be fooled

They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off illness and death.
You don't have anything
if you don't have the stories.
[The destroyers’] evil is mighty
but it can't stand up to our stories.
So they try to destroy the stories
let the stories be confused or forgotten –
They would like that.
They would be happy.
Because we would be defenseless then.

What happens when we forget the stories of Indigenous peoples?

What happens to Indigenous peoples when the dominant culture erases their stories?

What happens when United States citizens do not learn the story that Indigenous peoples had long existed here on these lands prior to contact with Europeans for many, many thousands of years –20,000 according to Western science, since time immemorial in Indigenous traditions?

What happens to the settler-colonial story of “civilizing” the wilderness when we remember that pre-contact Indigenous people possessed all the so-called hallmarks of civilization (language, religion, science, governance, the arts, cities and villages)?

Or when we forget the story that Indigenous peoples gave aid to early European travelers in need on all of our shores – east coast, west coast, Gulf coast, the interior -  preventing those travelers from succumbing to the elements for which they arrived unprepared, because to us, every life was sacred and hospitality was one of the responsibilities of being human?

What happens when we bury the story that the majority of those same travelers murdered Indigenous peoples in waves of increasing violence, forced (rather than offered) a new religion on us; what happens when no one hears the story that we fought back and resisted across every inch of this continent and were cheated, lied to, stolen from, massacred by U.S. military troops?

What happens when we silence the story that education came to Indigenous peoples not as a path to freedom, but because some government official did the math and discovered it was cheaper to educate an Indian child than to kill her?

What happens when we don’t know that Indigenous peoples in this country have gone from 100% of the population to one percent of the total population, yet we have the highest rates of suicide, substance abuse, incarceration, violent assaults and sexual assaults by the dominant culture? the lowest rates of high school graduation? the lowest enrollment in higher ed? the lowest economic status? the lowest life expectancy?

What does trauma look like when no one admits it is trauma?

As you’ve figured out by now, I could go on. I won’t. But I will say this:

When we silence or destroy or turn away from those stories, what happens is the story we are told instead, a story that goes something like this:

“This is the country where children learn names like Wyatt Earp, Davy Crockett, and Annie Oakley. This is the place where the pilgrims landed at Plymouth and where Texas patriots made their last stand at the Alamo. The American nation was carved out of the vast frontier by the toughest, strongest, fiercest, and most determined men and women ever to walk the face of the Earth. Our ancestors braved the unknown, tamed the wilderness, and settled the Wild West.” – President Donald Trump, State of the Union address, February 2020.

But this is not the story of the Americas. It is a story of intentional amnesia, of greed, of the need to erase Indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans and African Americans, Chinese, Mexican, and other immigrants, whose exploited labor and suffering either physically performed or enabled the vast majority of clearing, carving, fighting, taming and settling. It is a story that claims all of the bravery and determination of one side, and none of the bravery and determination of another. It is a story that has been weaponized, yet, like a boomerang thrown by one who doesn't understand the power of that instrument, will ultimately circle back and attack the unwary hand that set it into motion.

This is a story that aspires to epic, and yet, only by telling the more complicated, full story, would truly be heroic.  And this all matters because, as Audre Lorde and Joy Harjo remind us, we were never meant to survive – and we did.

For all of these reasons, then, a land acknowledgment serves as a mnemonic device for listeners: a reminder of what colonization (and missionization) have done to damage the very alive Indigenous human beings still struggling with the after-effects of what was an invasion of Indigenous homelands for the purposes of seizing land and the natural resources of that land. Inserting reminders into the land acknowledgment of past and current struggles - for example, citing Wounded Knee as well as Standing Rock or Mauna Kea - and suggesting ways to self-educate and/or work as an ally, enliven the land acknowledgment. When the land acknowledgement has become part of an institution's protocol (which has not happened at my university), those examples should be changed up frequently - to avoid oversaturation, and to keep the campus community updated on Indigenous issues.

Today we acknowledge the Monacan Nation, traditional caretakers whose cultures and customs have nurtured, and continue to nurture, this land, since time immemorial. We honor the presence of Indigenous Ancestors whose work enables us to live here today, and benefit from the harvests, waters, and beauty all around us. We acknowledge the responsibilities we bear to care for our Mother, whose Spirit is creation and sustenance, memory and story, in all her many forms, in all her acts of transformation. We honor our Indigenous relatives currently working to protect our planet's water, sacred spaces such as Mauna Kea, and environmental justice for all.

Nimasianexelpasaleki to Liliana for her visit here this week. I give these words to you with love from your sisters and brothers on Turtle Island.

Liliana Ancalao, Mapuche poet & activist

Deborah A. Miranda


  1. Thank you for this. I will share it and use it as I craft my own language to honor our regional 1st Nations Peoples.

  2. Thank you Deborah for this illuminating perspective on what a land acknowledgement is and isn't. It is not a perfunctory or political gesture. It is a moment to remember, to correct the story, to learn more, to find ways to take action to support our indigenous communities.


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